The number of heroin-related deaths in Australia has risen to levels not witnessed since the 1990s, prompting calls for a supervised injection facility (SIF) to be introduced in the city of Melbourne.
In response to the crisis, there is a growing body of support for the implementation of a 12-month pilot SIF programme in the inner city suburb of Richmond, a focal point for the heroin trade in Melbourne. Calls for its introduction from the Victoria state coroner, minor party politicians, and medical and policy experts join a chorus of growing support for the initiative, alongside local residents and businesses.
Should the pilot programme be adopted, the Richmond SIF would become the second such facility in Australia, joining the Sydney-based SIF operating out of Kings Cross. Since opening in 2001, the Kings Cross SIF has handled over 6,000 overdose incidents without a single fatality. The number of publicly discarded syringes in the city has decreased, along with the rate of blood-borne virus transmissions among people who inject drugs.
As one of over 90 SIFs operating globally, the success of the Kings Cross facility contributes to the growing body of evidence that drug-related harms be dealt with using a health approach, rather than a punitive one.
Despite the success of the Kings Cross SIF, the Victorian Labor Government – under Premier Daniel Andrews – remains resistant to a pilot programme in Richmond. While often heralded as Australia’s most progressive Premier, Andrews has long opposed any form of SIF in Melbourne, having been elected in 2014 with a firm policy position of no injecting rooms. In September 2017, a Parliamentary Inquiry into the potential of a pilot programme ultimately failed to recommend a trial, despite strong endorsement for the scheme by a majority of the submissions to the Inquiry.
As frustrating a result as this is for campaigners, it is not altogether unexpected as Labor attempts to shore up Government approval ratings relating to their perceived poor handling of law and order issues across the state. The Inquiry’s rejection of the pilot programme came just months after the Government’s announcement that it will introduce an additional 3,100 police officers. The government’s opposition to the SIF may thus relate to political expediency out of fear of being seen as “soft on crime”, which may help with polling numbers but comes at the cost of lives. If the Government does not act soon, annual overdose deaths are on a trajectory to overtake the state’s road death toll.
Nonetheless, hope remains in the push for the pilot programme, as Labor’s continuing opposition opens up a challenge for the local seat of Richmond by the Greens Party in the 2018 state election. With the margin of victory set to be close, the potential loss of Richmond may be enough to force a change in Labor’s stance and see the pilot programme become a reality.